Syrians displaced from the bombed-out Eastern Ghouta suburb are eager to return home, but fighting has destroyed so much of their hometowns that they can barely recognise their own neighbourhoods.
Eyebrows furrowed, Umm Mohammad examined a row of homes in Zamalka, trying to find a spark of familiarity in the heavily-damaged town.
“I haven’t found my home yet. The neighbourhood’s features have all changed and I lost all the main landmarks,” said the 50-year-old, who left Zamalka in 2012 after having lived there for more than a decade.
“My house is near the high school on Al-Qabun street, but I couldn’t find the high school or even the street.”
Row after row of apartment blocks lie gutted, blocked off by berms of debris and twisted metal. Many of the remaining buildings are missing roofs, balconies or entire walls.
President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces on Thursday finally secured Eastern Ghouta, once the opposition’s main bastion on the edge of Damascus.
Rockets, air strikes, and mortar fire rained down on Ghouta since mid-February during a fierce assault that prompted tens of thousands to flee into government-held territory.
Some have cautiously returned but are finding their neighbourhoods utterly pulverised.
“Zamalka was paradise. But now it’s full of barricades and dirt, and doorways are sealed off with mines,” Umm Mohammad said.
With the help of a Syrian soldier, Umm Mohammad clambered over rubble to enter one house after the other, hoping to find her own.
“I risked my life to come here and I won’t leave until I find my home and go inside,” she told AFP. “I just want one look, even if it’s the last.”
‘Nothing but dirt’
Hundreds were gathered on Wednesday on the edge of Ghouta, impatiently waiting for rubble to be cleared from the main entrances.
A bulldozer dismantled barricades and sand berms to allow emotional residents and a press convoy organised by Syria’s government to enter.
Umm Rateb was ready for the wait. She had brought with her a small chair and a blanket to pull over her head to protect her from the searing sun.
She looked over the shrinking sand berms into the ravaged scene beyond.
“I came alone to see my house in Kafr Batna, without knowing if it’s still standing or if it’s been turned to ruins,” the 65-year-old said.
“Even if it’s nothing but dirt, I’ll put down this blanket and sit in my home.”
Once the roads were open, residents and journalist vehicles entered Ghouta, struggling to make out the paved road under a blanket of debris.
Passing through Arbin, another devastated Ghouta town, a young girl peeked out from a damaged home.
“My daughter is not used to seeing cars, so this sight was very strange for her,” said Abu Aziza, 34, as his eight-year-old daughter looked on.
Before the assault that brought most of Ghouta under government control, the area was under a brutal five-year siege that made food, medicine, and other basic goods nearly impossible to come by.
“It’s not just cars ─ my daughter doesn’t know what apples are. She saw a banana for the first time two days ago and ate the whole thing with the peel,” Abu Aziza told AFP.
“She didn’t know you’re supposed to peel a banana.” And 63-year-old Fuad Mahjub was eager to reach his family home and sewing workshop in the district of Ain Terma.
“I left everything just a few metres (yards) away from here,” Mahjub said, standing with his young granddaughter Khadija by his side.
“She has never been to my home and only knows Ain Terma from the photographs ─ but if we go back, it’ll make up for all the hard years. “